Less than two months after Dr. Letitia Dzirasa started as Baltimore’s health commissioner, the mayor who hired her resigned. Shortly after her one-year anniversary on the job, the city saw its first confirmed case of COVID-19. It’s hard to imagine a more tumultuous tenure; “eventful” is how Dzirasa describes it. Since the pandemic began, she’s been directing the city’s response alongside the mayor. She wants to make sure every decision is driven by data. “I’ve been told I have a calming presence,” Dzirasa said. “I’m trying to maintain that as much as possible.”
— Talia Richman
51, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation
The Annie E. Casey Foundation has long measured the dimensions of the inequities in education, health and the economy. So, when the pandemic hit and people marched for racial justice, Lisa Hamilton and her team urgently responded to meet basic needs for food, housing and digital access locally and nationwide. All the while, Hamilton says the foundation is looking to create lasting structural change: “So much of what hurts kids and families in this country is based on policies and practices that are embedded in all facets of our lives.”
This year, Melissa Hyatt’s job has been “incredibly challenging” given the pandemic and national conversations on policing. But Baltimore County’s first female police chief and first Jewish chief has focused on establishing relationships with the community. She’s proud of her department’s progress, which includes work on a staffing study, “fair and impartial training” and measures requiring officers to report unnecessary use of force. “We’re pulling our police officers together and having really difficult conversations about race and gender and things that we traditionally didn’t talk about internally in law enforcement,” she said. “Our intention for the upcoming year is to expand that into sensitive conversations with our community members.”
The first woman and person of color to serve as Maryland’s House speaker, Adrienne A. Jones dove into her first legislative session with a packed agenda. In a pandemic-shortened session, she led the passage of bills reforming public education and funding a settlement over disparate treatment of historically Black universities. She hadn’t prepped for a pandemic or recession, but “women are used to multi-tasking, so we have continued to work on behalf of the people of Maryland,” says the Baltimore County Democrat. Jones is working to safely return lawmakers to Annapolis in 2021, when she plans to override vetoes of the education bills and pass legislation to reform police, ensure equity in education and restore the economy.
— Pamela Wood
45, co-owner and brewer, Checkerspot Brewing Co.
In the nearly two years since launching Checkerspot Brewing Co., one thing about Judy Neff’s life has remained a constant: her single-minded enthusiasm for brewing. “That was always my passion before, so fortunately for me, work is what I love,” she said. What has changed is Checkerspot’s growth. Recently, distributing canned beer, which the pandemic hastened, has become a boon for the brewery in the Spring Garden Industrial Area of South Baltimore. As one of a few women leaders in local brewing, she’s also noticing more diverse crowds and staffs in her industry but acknowledges, “There’s still a lot more room to grow.”
— Sameer Rao
53, White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks, CNN political analyst
With another book “on the horizon,” a presidential election that’s imminent and “mommy duty times 12, plus work times 12” because of the pandemic, journalist April Ryan says working from home with her daughters has been good and bad. “The positive is: I’m home with my kids. The negative is: I’m home with my kids,” she says jokingly. The journalist, known for standing her ground with the Trump administration, grows more reflective in talking about the pandemic’s lockdown days. “Seriously, it’s a bonding moment. … At the end when this is all over, the memory will be that we survived this together.”
— David Zurawik
59, minority whip, Maryland House of Delegates
Since first winning election in 2010, Del. Kathy Szeliga has risen to become one of the top generals for the loyal Republican opposition in the Democratic-led Maryland General Assembly. As the second-ranking Republican in the House of Delegates, she helps develop and champion the GOP’s agenda. She’s often found standing in front of the House chamber, raising questions about Democratic bills and fighting for Republican amendments. “We play an important role in making sure the governor and other legislators remember the state is big and doesn’t all look the same,” says Szeliga, whose district includes parts of Harford and Baltimore counties.
The pandemic wreaked havoc with Stephanie Ybarra’s debut year at the helm of Maryland’s state theater — but made her even more determined to champion artists and audiences who are frequently overlooked. Ybarra’s first season showcased the deaf community, people with non-traditional gender identifications and promising young playwrights. She sent a truck around the Inner Harbor with a sign inviting visiting Republican members of Congress (who were in town) to a show about undocumented immigrants. And she fell in love with Baltimore. “It’s so specific in its quirk,” she said, “from Old Bay [seasoning] to saying ‘Baldimore’ with a ‘d’ intead of a ‘t.’ I love every aspect of it.”